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The Universal Christ: Neither Imperialist nor Localist but Evangelists

October 30th, 2023 | 12 min read

By Terence Sweeney

Christians have long looked to the early Christians for guidance. Their proximity to the source of Christianity, the work they did to foster orthodoxy and unity within the Church, and the ways in which they spread the Gospel provide inspiration for Christians in other eras. For Christian living in a post-Christendom age, they offer a particular wisdom because they lived in a pre-Christendom age. As a minority religion now, we look to how Christians acted in the minority then. Sohrab Ahmari looks to the ancients for guidance in his essay “Apostolic Empire,” finding in their political takeover of the Roman Empire guidance for taking over the American Empire.

A book review focused on the Christians of the Roman empire, it already has managed to inspire critical articles, defensives ones, and now this one for good measure. The right path is not a localism of retreat that Ahmari rightly castigates, but it also not Christian take over of the imperium. What is needed now is what was lived out then: a commitment to communities of witness, service, and worship that aim not for imperial power but for evangelization and so seek not an empire but the Kingdom.

Getting Things Wrong While You Try to Get Them Right

I am in a sense taking up Ahmari’s own approach in that he tries to show how a misunderstanding of the past undermines our understanding of the right course of action today. For Ahmari, we misapprehend what the early Christians were up to and so cannot understand what we now should do. As he puts it, “Some Christians have been tempted to return to the ‘catacombs,’ or even to see the Church ‘purified’ down to mustard-seed size as a prelude to healthier growth.” These Christians are tempted by a false vision of the early Church and so “rather than seek to envelop modern civilization… they would build smaller communities characterized by intense piety, homespun institutions, and a readiness for ostracism.”

Looking to the early Church, they see inspiration for their desire for retreat. But, according to Ahmari, the early Church did not retreat into localism appearing every-once-and-while to get martyred; rather “the Church of the Catacombs was a highly organized, hierarchical, corporate institution prepared to capture an empire for Christ.” Since they wanted to capture their empire, we should want to capture our empire too. There was no retreat to the Catacombs; there was a seizure of the imperium. Those who argue for building up schools, parishes, local communities, and families have managed to botch their history. The early Christians aimed for regime change and so should we.

Ahmari is right that the early Church had little interest in mere localism, though it is not always clear who he is criticizing. The folks at New Polity? Devotees of Wendell Berry? Rod Dreher? Whomever he has in mind, he builds a series of compounding errors on this claim. Ahmari traces an essential aspect of Christian life back to the wrong source and consequently wholly misunderstands the primary shape of social action for Christians then and now. For Ahmari, it is not just that localist Christians fail to understand the universality of Christianity: “the universalist religion of this new church was from the beginning suited to and even prefigured by the political universalism of the Roman Empire.” Localists abandon this universalism and thus malform their understanding of the history of Christianity and worse, our situation today.

It is with the question of universalism that Ahmari goes awry. Christian universalism is prefigured for Ahmari by Rome, the universal empire. As he further writes “Roman reality structured the Christian mind and lent it the same universalist impulse.” Christianity thus learned its universalism from Rome and so was transformed from mere localism into a world spanning religion. Learning this universal mission from Rome, the Church took over Rome to be universal.

It is remarkable how wrong this is. The Church did not get its universalism from Rome; it got it from Christ. Were Christianity to have gotten its universal mission from Rome then it might have received its tactics from Rome as well. But Christianity received its universalism from a man crucified by Rome. Receiving Her universal mission from Christ means that Christ offers the tactics for a Christian life. Christian universalism is fundamentally grounded in the Great Commission.

Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matt 28:16-20).

Christian universalism comes from the Son of God who sends Christians to all peoples. In so doing, Christ exposes the counterfeit universalism of Rome. Plenty of nations were outside of the Roman imperium from Ireland to Ethiopia. Yes, Paul was called to Macedonia and from there to Rome, but Philip was called to Ethiopia (not Roman), the Apostle Thomas went to Parthia and then India (also not Roman). Later Patrick went to Hibernia, Boniface to Germany, and Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs. Christianity showed little interest in merely being Roman because it showed little interest in being sent to one nation. Its universalism was actually universal and so its universal mission was established on Pentecost when the Gospel was preached to:

Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs. (Acts 2:9-11)

Romans are included in a list which features peoples from outside of the Roman empire (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and Arabs) and some that could hardly be reduced to being Roman (Egypt or Crete). At the birth of the Church, she already extended beyond Rome.

Living out our Origins

Origins often set the terms for the community that arises from that origin. For Augustine, the founding of Rome and of the earthly city itself, had parallel structures that determined the viciousness of each community. A brother killed a brother to gain dominion. Augustine saw Rome as a community of vice from its origin. In contrast to Romulus or Cain, the pilgrim city’s true founder is Christ who died for his brethren. By this correct genealogy, we can develop the proper virtues of the pilgrim city—humility and love—in opposition to the vices of the earthly city—pride and dominion. Knowing our origins rightly gives us the standards by which we are to act in our personal and political lives. In seeing the true origin of the Church’s universal mission, we can understand how Christians are to live out this mission.

The Great Commission and Pentecost center on two actions: baptizing and teaching. Arising from the authority of Jesus, the apostles are sent to evangelize. Ahmari’s genealogy of Christian universalism leads to a false binary that obscures the Christian task today. Thinking of contemporary Christian localists, he describes a “modern Catholic yearning for catacombs and mustard seeds, the new abhorrence of worldly power and authoritative structures in favor of everything small.” One either selects smallness and hiding (thus abandoning the universal mission) or one takes on worldly power and authoritative structures (thus living out the universal mission). If you are thinking primarily as a Roman, this binary makes sense. One either retreats or one conquers, one either disengages from the world or uses worldly power to capture the world.

This binary makes the localists out to be quietists. Since early Christians were neither localists nor quietist, they must have sought worldly power and authoritative structures. But this ignores what the early Church actually did and what Christians ought to do. They evangelized; we ought to evangelize. At Pentecost, Roman and non-Romans wondered at Peter’s words being understood in all languages. Peter was not seeking a position in the Empire, he was preaching. Paul traveled to different cities not to build up political contacts, but to preach new communities into being. Having planted those churches, he wrote his letters to build them up in the faith, correct their errors, and promote charitable work.

Ahmari, having in mind the supposed quietism of Christian localism, writes “Christianity could have emerged as a religion of isolated, inland places. But it didn’t take that shape. It was a religion of polyglot ports and city-states under the administration of a multinational empire.” He is exactly right and totally wrong. Christianity did not retreat to ‘inland places.’ Christians went to the cities embedding themselves in the lives of their neighbors. This non-separatism was necessary for the growth of the Christian faith in a hostile culture.

How did this growth happen? For Ahmari, it is certainly not because “ours is a martyrs’ faith.” The Christian localists think this, but encountering the early Church, will throw “cold water on the fatalistic over-eagerness for ‘martyrdom’ among today’s doom-mongering would-be troglodytes.” Ahmari is right that most early Christians were not martyred, many early Christians left the faith when threatened, and no one should seek martyrdom. But an eagerness for martyrdom, rightly understood, is precisely what needs to be inculcated in people to avoid either quietism or lust for political dominion. In large part, true martyrdom is bound up with universality. It was Ignatius of Antioch who coined the term Catholic (as in universal) and developed the hierarchical, episcopal, and Rome-centered Church. Ignatius, the universalist, was a martyr. The great proponent of a universal and hierarchical Church died for the faith.

But it is not in Ignatius’s death that we should focus our consideration of martyrdom. To do so would be to make martyrdom a rare, though glorious, part of Church life. But martyrdom is not a rare feature of the Church. As Gerhard Cardinal Müller explains, the Church lives out the mission of Christ through martyria, leitourgia, and diakonia. Martyria is preaching and pastoral care; diakonia is the active love and social ethics of the Church. Both arise from and lead to the liturgical life of the Church. Ignatius would not have been martyred if he had just stayed in the catacomb. He was martyred because of his martyrdom, killed publicly because he kept publicly witnessing. What he teaches us is that witnessing with our life is essential to any Christian life even if it leads to witnessing with our deaths.

The Christians of the early Church were not localists holing up in secret communities and periodically coming out to be martyred. They were committed to preaching the Word and to the public works of mercy. Living the life of worship, witness, and service, they spread throughout Rome and beyond Rome. It was the publicness of their faith, their welcoming of others (especially the poor) into their communities, and their commitment to living out mercy and humility rather than dominion and pride that so bothered Imperial Rome. They did this from out of their small, localized communities which multiplied and spread in a hostile environment. The Church of the catacombs and house churches was a public church. Their fostering of local communities led directly to a witnessing that calls all into communion.

A Mustard Seed Church

Why does any of this matter? It matters because we live in analogous times. The task of any Christian, in any time, is to scrutinize the signs of the times according to the Gospel. To read our times is to see that we are once again in polyglot, apathetic, sometimes hostile un-Christian world. As the early Christians were a minority religion, so too are we. Were one to take from this that we ought to retreat into a localism that gives up on the world, then we would fail to follow the Christians of the early Church.

There is a lot different now. We deal not with pagans who have never heard of Christ. We face the secularized who have forgotten Christ, and secularizers who seek to blot out the memory of Christ. Surrounded by the half apathetic and half hostile, we evangelize in a new context. But the core dynamic is the same, build communities from out of which to witness and serve.

To get a better sense of our current situation, I would like to turn to someone who articulated what a smaller, politically weak, and purer Church might look like: Joseph Ratzinger. In an address on German radio in 1969, Ratzinger laid out the vision ‘a smaller purer Church,’ a vision mocked by Ahmari. In the address, Ratzinger read the signs of the times and predicted what the portended. From within this forecast, he saw an opportunity for the Church to shed her temptation to political power. In his ‘smaller-purer’ speech, he stated that “we have no need of a Church that celebrates the cult of action in political prayers.” To those in his time who hoped for the Church to advance the political vision of the right or left, Ratzinger demurred. He knew well we were long past exercising such power, especially because we had often exercised it so poorly. Setting aside the sword of temporal power, “the Church will be a more spiritual Church” and so will “not presume upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right.”

We would be wrong to envision the early Church, which lacked a political mandate and rejected political prayers, as being quietistic. We should not think of Ratzinger, and those he has inspired, as being quietists. Rather, he described the Church as she stands today. Where she stands is small. Even though her reach is truly global, everywhere she extends, she extends as a minority. Thus “from the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.” Becoming smaller won’t be the goal—nor should it be—rather it is our situation in our Christ-forgetting world.

What Ratzinger predicted has happened. The Church is small. She especially shrinks among and because of those “who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment.” Ever pursuing the present moment, they manage to be perpetually dated. Absorbed by the imperium, they can neither witness against it nor witness within it. For such accommodationist on the right left, witnessing even onto death becomes nigh impossible.

For Ratzinger, our present moment means we can and should start afresh. What does it mean to start from the beginning? We will no longer be a Church of cultural inheritance or politically compelled adherence. The Church will be “much more a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.” Such a free decision in an apathetic and hostile environment will mean a community especially committed because “as a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.” If the Church is and will be smaller, what is needed is a full commitment to her message through witness, a full commitment to her convictions through service, and full love for God expressed through worship. Those who live this trifold commitment will find themselves often lonely and isolated but also, by God’s grace, purer. Purity of heart means clear intentionality towards God. In the past, socio-political advantages might have come from faith. Paris, being worth a Mass, expressed an aspect of social and political advancement. This is no longer the case. Thus “the future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith.” You aren’t going to win Paris by going to Mass, but you will draw closer to God. With the former motivation gone, all we have is the latter.

Living this purity cannot be done in isolation, as sad liberal subjects who happen to hold Christian convictions. Ratzinger is talking about the future of the Church, the ecclesial community, the people of God, the pilgrim city of the faithful in every country, no matter what Imperium they find themselves in. In other words, we will need local communities from out of which to live this pure faith. We cannot witness, serve, and worship alone. But we will not just have these communities as places of respite and retreat. These communities themselves will be the witness. In Lumen Gentium, Catholics hold that “the Church is universal sacrament of salvation.” Likewise, local communities within the Church act as sacraments in their witness, service, and worship.

From Wanderers to Wayfarers

The great evangelizer, Bartolome de las Casas, taught that the work of evangelization is the work of drawing wanderers from out of the imperium and into the ecclesial community of wayfarers. Shifting from their citizenship in the imperium, they become pilgrims in a different city. In the wreckage of late modernity, people will need this community. Ratzinger writes that “men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely.” Only from this experience, from finding themselves in the spiritual pig trough of our time, “they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.” To foster local communities of commitment is not to isolate but to radiate hope. This radiance cannot be merely incidental; it must be intentional. In ancient Rome, the Church radiated out to the lonely. Our work now is not so different. In the wreckage of late modernity, our aim is the same as the early Christians. We should not be trying to take over the empire but evangelize it through words of witness and works of service that invite people out of the empire and into the Kingdom.

Terence Sweeney

Terence Sweeney is a professor in the Honors Program at Villanova University.